In the opening sentences of The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, a young American woman living in Europe has a miscarriage when her husband swerves the car to avoid hitting a bird in the road, and crashes into a rock instead. He rushes outside to save the bird—a wallcreeper, a common gray thing with brilliant crimson wings, a “species of least concern”—and eventually they take it home and make it their pet. Not much is said about the miscarriage. Which gives you a sense of the priorities in Tiff and Stephen’s marriage, and a clue to Nell Zink’s writing: she’s always burying the lead.
Outside of the Babysitter’s Club, has there ever been a literary protagonist named Tiff? Not even Tiffany, but Tiff? It’s as if Zink is daring us to see Tiff as someone flighty and inconsequential. Which is true. Tiff doesn’t have a job. (At the start of the novel, Stephen earns enough for both of them as a medical engineer, building a “contraption” for hearts.) Tiff isn’t faithful. (The first of her European affairs is a working-class Albanian lothario named Elvis.) Tiff can’t focus on any productive enterprise whatsoever. (Unless it’s productive to sabotage a German river by slowly removing rocks from its banks.) But dear god, it’s fun to be inside her head. Tiff is piercingly intelligent, and she does this thing that certain intelligent, insecure people do, where they constantly put themselves down in clever, entertaining ways, in a sort of cry for help.
When Elvis slips his hand between her knees and proposes sex in public:
It had never occurred to me before that people actually maybe do have sex they don’t want to have. I had always assumed those people had nothing holding them back but inhibitions. But I felt no inhibitions whatsoever. Instead I perceived a powerful longing in my innermost or outermost being (there was no difference, since I generally based appraisals of my affections on the momentary condition of my genitalia) to thaw, spread, and embody the essence of fecundity like a river in springtime.
Yet I also felt strongly that the time might have come to raise myself above the worms by a display of will. I worried that my lust was inhibiting my self-respect and not the other way around.
Not the kind of internal monologue you expect to hear from a birding enthusiast named Tiff, is it? And yet Tiff and Stephen are fanatical birders. They make major life decisions based on whether or not they will be able to go outside and look at birds. It’s uproariously incongruous, like discovering that a notorious serial killer was, first and foremost, one of the world’s leading experts on stamp collecting. Birding and a stubborn insistence on the value of marriage, despite their obvious inability to preserve it, are the two things that bind Tiff and Stephen together.
And Stephen is no catch, either. He’s caustically smart and chronically uncaring. (“Every woman is unique in her own way and most of them are pieces of shit. Whereas any wallcreeper is an avatar of the one true wallcreeper.”) In Berlin he dabbles as a DJ, playing music that sounds, to Tiff, “like a container ship that had grounded on a shoal and was slowly falling over.” He is repressing his bisexuality. He sneaks away from Tiff to do drugs in clubs. If I knew someone like this in real life I would inevitably find myself punching him in the face. And yet it’s hard to think of two fictional characters who are more believably fucked up, or more exquisitely codependent, or more maddening and joyful to know.
Clearly, nothing but trouble is in store for these two lovers. Stephen quits his job and starts to volunteer for a radical German environmental group, mostly so that he can cheat on Tiff with a gnarly hippie named Birke. Tiff goes one step further, ingratiating herself to a highborn German priest who encourages her to sabotage the aforementioned river—for the sake of protecting wild birds, of course. So they become eco-terrorists. They lose all of their money. In search of more birds to see, they journey to Albania, the very country that Elvis was fleeing, and they hit rock bottom. But with trouble comes a few glimmers of self-knowledge.
As a narrator, Tiff is always outpacing herself. She rushes into fights, sexual relationships, and outrageous schemes to reshape the entire landscape without first consulting her formidable brain. By the time The Wallcreeper reached its surprise conclusion, I could have slapped my forehead for not seeing it coming. Which is probably what Nell Zink wanted. I blame Tiff and her totally engrossing point of view.
A manic, heartfelt, deeply intelligent novel, The Wallcreeper is one of the best books of the year, and certainly the most memorable. How do you like that? I buried the lead.
– Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus, Founder of Fiction Advocate, and Curator of the Critical Hit Awards at Electric Literature.